SEATTLE — Sometimes when something that “just can’t happen” does happen, valuable lessons are learned. That was the case when some batches of commercially produced, packaged, whole caramel apples turned out to be the cause of a listeriosis outbreak in 2014-15 that infected 35 people from 12 states, putting 34 of them in the hospital. Listeria monocytogenes bacteria contributed to at least three of the seven deaths that were linked to the outbreak, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The onset of illnesses ranged from Oct. 2014 to Feb. 12, 2015, when CDC announced that the outbreak “appears to be over.” When the outbreak began, no one suspected apples. After all, fresh apples had never been linked to any major food safety outbreaks. Quite the contrary. According to a recent survey reported in The New York Times, 99 percent of members of the American Society for Nutrition and 96 percent of a representative sample of the American electorate consider apples and oranges as healthy. No wonder apples have always been considered a shining star in the produce industry. The bony finger of blame Must be the caramel, was the first reaction when caramel apples were linked to the Listeria outbreak. But, no, to almost everyone’s surprise, the source of the problem turned out to be fresh apples from Bidart Bros. in California. State and federal investigators found Listeria monocytogenes on polishing brushes, drying brushes, a packing line drain, inside a wood bin and on an automatic packing line. In addition the inspectors “observed direct food contact areas of packaging equipment used during the 2014 apple season, constructed and/or maintained in a manner that they cannot be properly cleaned.” Subsequent research revealed the Listeria monocytogenes on the apples’ skins got pushed into their flesh when the sticks were inserted into them as part of the caramel apple production process. The caramel coating, in turn, sealed apple juice in between the skin and coating, providing a microenvironment where the Listeria could grow undisturbed. Not surprisingly, repercussions rained down on the apple industry. Washington state was hit especially hard. It is the nation’s largest producer of apples, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, having produced 4,550 million pounds in 2010. In contrast, California produced only 115 million pounds that year. Of that comparatively small California volume, Bidart was not a major player. In other words, it was a relatively small orchard and packing house by industry standards. Yet with inaccurate news about the outbreak running rampant through social media, some importers in Asia temporarily stopped buying U.S. apples altogether. Before it was over, the outbreak had gouged a $15 million hole in export sales for Washington state’s apples. “It was terrible — totally out of control,” Mark Powers of the Northwest Horticultural Council told more than 300 people attending the Center for Produce Safety’s 7th annual food-safety research symposium. “The response was off the charts — out of the bounds of reality.” More than that, he said, it triggered “a sea change in our thinking about export risks.” Bob Whitaker, chief science and technology officer for the Produce Marketing Association, described the situation as one of the industry’s “watershed moments,” saying that “everything is global now.” But thanks to some concerted diligence in getting the correct information out to the right people, the spilled apple cart was finally righted, and export sales resumed. But the fresh fruit industry had learned an important lesson. It was going to have to hunker down and take a “whole-systems” approach to food safety. And that meant packing lines were going to come under even closer scrutiny than before. The times they are a changin’ Something else had also changed. Before the outbreak, the main food safety focus for apple growers and shippers had been E. coli, since the outbreak, “the focus is on Listeria almost entirely,” Ines Hanrahan, project manager for the Washington Tree Fruit Research Commission, told symposium attendees. In response to the outbreak, the industry made quick progress in developing training and workshops on cleaning and sanitation in the packing sheds. Change was the name of the game. “For the first time, the cleaning and sanitation personnel were included in the workshops,” said Hanrahan, adding that suppliers were also included. “We were getting everyone on the same page. We realized we had a lack of communication.” Instead of telling workers they needed to wear gloves and clean the brushes, for example, the workers were also told why doing that was important for food safety. They also learned why it’s so important to properly clean equipment such as dunk tanks more frequently and why standing water is such a huge problem when it comes to food safety. Having a reward system in place, whether it be pizza parties or just the acknowledgment that the workers are doing things right, is also important, Hanrahan said. “It’s about the people,” she said. “About really understanding what they’re accomplishing. And how does this relate to them — to their family.” Changes in personnel can play a part in this since management and the crew leader need to have “buy in” for the need to take more time for cleaning. Those who don’t, or won’t, need to go. Having buy-in from ownership is also important. They need to know that “If you don’t get this straight, you won’t have anything to sell,” Hanrahan said. When good needs to be better Not that the apple industry wasn’t already following good food safety practices, especially since most of the retailers require food safety audits. In fact, many people at the research symposium agreed that the industry was ahead of the curve. But the Listeria outbreak put a tighter focus on what was needed to prevent foodborne pathogens from getting into packing sheds and onto the apples. The situation also saw industry competitors come together, with some opening their operations to one another as a way to share information. Coffee groups were formed, with competitors joining in. “It expanded industry connections,” said Hanrahan, sharing some of the key learnings from the outbreak:
- Get organized before an outbreak;
- Work together on all levels;
- Research your answers, because insufficient answers create insecurity and delay an active approach to the situation; and
- Conduct research that is practical.
Hanrahan also said when companies put in new packing lines, they need to make sure the drains are accessible for cleaning and that there’s good lighting, adequate setups for cleaning, and enough water. Northwest Horticultural Council’s Powers also offered some tips about the flow of information after an outbreak:
- Decide who needs to know what;
- Stick to the facts; and
- Determine the message and the messenger. Who are the credible ones?
In many cases, said Powers, people didn’t trust their own regulators. In other cases, social media is viewed as a trusted source of information. “We didn’t have the resources for social media,” he said. As for some lessons learned about social media posts during outbreak and recall situations, Powers had this advice to share: “Always put a date on your communications — and get a social media expert.” “We have to be trusted as a credible source of information,” he said, referring to the need for the produce industry to work with researchers and media to get the right information out. He also pointed out that now, when anyone with a laptop can communicate whatever message he or she thinks is correct, there’s a lot of room for a lot of miscommunication. During a break in the presentations, PMA’s Whitaker stressed that social media is a tool that needs to be leveraged. “It’s one of these hurdles that we need to learn how to use,” he said. “You wouldn’t have thought of it several years ago. But we can use it to get good food safety information out to people instead of just having it sit around on shelves in binders. The trick is to get it into the hands of the right people.” Looking ahead During her presentation about lessons learned during the outbreak, Kathleen Glass, associate director for the Food Research Institute at the University of Wisconsin, said data about the 2014-15 outbreak provides an explanation about why there was an outbreak and why something like it can potentially happen again. “As we look at other types of food products, it highlights the effect of the microenvironment on food safety and emphasizes the need to be taking a look at other intervention strategies,” she said. The ultimate goal, according to Glass: “So we can make a listeria-free or pathogen-free environment for food products that might be able to support (pathogen) growth.” Martin Wiedmann, Gellert Family Professor of Food Safety at Cornell, also warned that fresh vegetable and fruit producers need to keep in mind what the end use of their product will be. In other words, “What can go wrong with our product once it’s out of our control. Could a use for the product turn it from a low-risk food into a high-risk food?” “In the end, this will come back to us,” Wiedmann said, warning what could happen if looking forward isn’t part of an overall food safety strategy. “We need to think outside the box and envision new approaches,” he said. (To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)